Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Food Politics: How Wild Rice Is Helping This Native American Tribe Restore Its Health—and Its Heritage

PICTUREPARTNERS/GETTY

PICTUREPARTNERS/GETTY

James Whetung’s origin story is one familiar to indigenous communities across the Great Lakes region. Half-lament, half-reportage, and delivered in the cadence of a chant, it goes like this:

I was born in Curve Lake, Mud Lake, Turtle Island. My mom was Otter Clan and my dad was Black Duck Clan. It was not an accidental process that separated the Nishnaabe from our culture. Names, maps change. We never crossed the borders, the borders crossed us. We have been part of the wild ricing community for thousands of years, but in the last 75 years, that has declined.”

The goal of his tale is in part to reclaim the names and family ties that were eclipsed or disappeared under colonialism in Canada: Curve Lake is the name of the Central Ontario native reserve where he lives. Mud Lake and Turtle Island reference one of his peoples’ origin myths, in which all of North America springs from collaboration between the first indigenous Anishnaabe (“good person”), a muskrat, a turtle, and a pawful of mud taken from the bottom of a lake.

Whetung tells his story to remind his people of their history, and the central role wild rice—or manoomin (pronounced mah-noh-min) as it is called in Ojibwe—once played in their communities: how it was lost to many over the course of three generations, and how they can reclaim it—and along with it, their culture.

A SUPERFOOD WITH ANCIENT ROOTS

Wild rice is actually a species of aquatic grasses that grow in lakes, tidal rivers and bays in the United States and Canada. Along with corn, it is the only commonly consumed grain native to North America. Protein and fiber rich, manoomin is more nutritious than white rice and was the most nutrient-dense component of the Indigenous diet.

The wild rice harvesting traditions of First Nations (as non-Inuit and Métis Indigenous people are referred to in Canada) eroded under the incursions of early settlers, hunters and loggers. It was dealt another blow in the late 1880s after the official adoption of government-sponsored, religious “residential schools,” for native children. In an attempt to assimilate them into white society, children were taken from their families and taught English or French, often as their native culture and language were disparaged. Indigenous wild ricing know-how was just one of the many traditional folkways lost in the process. 

Whetung was educated in a missionary school on the reserve, where fluency with his native language was one of the casualties of his education. Though his parents and relatives all spoke Anishnaabe, he says, “I can’t speak it today. I know a lot of words, but I’m not fluent.”

Wild rice became for him the connection back to his culture. Over the last 35 years he has plied the lakes of Southern Ontario harvesting, processing and reseeding the lakes and rivers near his home. In addition to running his business Black Duck Wild Rice, Whetung is an evangelist for the grain, raising peoples’ consciousness about its role in their culture through demonstrations and workshops.

James Whetung teaches a workshop on wild rice—called manoomin in Ojibwe—at Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

James Whetung teaches a workshop on wild rice—called manoomin in Ojibwe—at Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

I met Whetung last summer, during a series of workshops on manoomin—which means “the good berry” in Ojibwe— held at Toronto’s Evergreen Brickworks, a Toronto-based nonprofit devoted to creating sustainable cities.

Whetung has dark, shining eyes and hair styled in a Mohawk. A skillful raconteur, his holistic view of the world is cloaked in a disarming playfulness. Late August, when the ripe grains of wild rice swell with a latex-like, milky substance, is his favorite time of year. It is then when, in the traditional manner, harvesters wend their way through stands of rice in canoes, the forward most person knocking the ripe grains gently into the boat with a stick.

Vying for the grains are fish, geese, frogs, blackbirds, and ducks, the latter “using lily pads like plates,” Whetung explains, off of which they feast on fallen rice. He doesn’t mind sharing.

Wild rice harvesters traditionally wend their way through stands of wild rice in canoes, knocking the ripe grains from the aquatic grasses into the boat with a stick. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

Wild rice harvesters traditionally wend their way through stands of wild rice in canoes, knocking the ripe grains from the aquatic grasses into the boat with a stick. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

“This is a garden and we’re all part of it,” he adds. “If we don’t pick the rice that family of muskrats will.” Coexisting with other wild rice eaters is to Whetung is of a piece with “making the muskrats’ clothes our clothes,” just part of a shared life on his land’s lakes and rivers.

A LEGACY WORTH FIGHTING FOR 

Wild rice has also increasingly become an area of friction between indigenous and non-indigenous interests. In the late 1970s conflicts between indigenous and non-indigenous commercial rice harvesters had unfolded in several parts of Ontario. Potentially lucrative wild rice crops were at stake, and to local tribes, part of their culture and way of life. In the fall of 1981, an Algonquin elder named Harold Perry put out a call for First Nations people to come to the aid of his community in Ardoch, Ontario, several hours’ drive northeast of Curve Lake, where he was battling a non-native commercial wild rice harvester.

Whetung answered the call, along with perhaps several hundred other protestors. Picket lines and police roadblocks went up, choppers circled overhead, and the tense situation eventually erupted into pushing and shoving. In the end, the protestors prevailed, and the commercial harvester was stopped. After the lesson in protest politics, Whetung’s most valued takeway from the experience was an awakening to the possibilities of wild rice.

In Ardoch, he learned to harvest, roast, hull, or “dance” on it, and winnow it.  He heard stories of long ago times when wild rice stands were so thick they could entangle and drown a man. Enthralled by his new knowledge, Whetung recalls, “I wanted to feed it to my family.” The next year, he started planting wild rice in front of his house on the south end of Pigeon Lake, located in a region dotted with 15 lakes known as the Kawarthas.

Whetung decided he wanted to help feed his community, too. He built his first wild ricing hulling machine out of scavenged spare parts: a small Honda pump motor, an old TV antenna for the axle and “metal off the fridge,” for a housing. “There was nobody to teach me, I just had to dream and imagine,” he says.

To understand the process better and pick up new techniques, Whetung traveled to native communities in the Great Lakes regions of Canada and the U.S., where indigenous tribes were originally drawn to settle in part by the rich abundance of wild rice growing along their shores. Whetung gathered seeds and refined his own “recipe” for manoomin processing along the way.

Today, he piles his harvest in 30-foot-long rows, and turns them with a pitchfork daily to keep the color uniform as the rice “cures” or begins to ferment. If the rice becomes too dry, he adds a little water, but not so much that the rice will become moldy. “You have to treat it with care or it will start to smell like ammonia,” he warns.

After harvesting, wild rice is dried and cured for 10 days (left), then roasted. The chaff is then removed from the grain; traditionally this is done by dancing on the grains (right). PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

After harvesting, wild rice is dried and cured for 10 days (left), then roasted. The chaff is then removed from the grain; traditionally this is done by dancing on the grains (right). PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

The curing process takes 10 days, and then he parches, or roasts, the rice until it’s “like glass,” he says, “clear and hard,” so that the chaff will come off easily during the hulling, or “dancing” process. Traditionally young boys wearing special moccasins would perform this task. The winnowing process comes next: placing the rice on blankets, trays or bowls and letting the wind blow the chaff and dust away.

Wild rice is roasted to harden it (left). To blow away the chaff, the hulled wild rice is tossed into the air. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

Wild rice is roasted to harden it (left). To blow away the chaff, the hulled wild rice is tossed into the air. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NANCY MATSUMOTO

A FRAGILE RESOURCE

Although First Nation groups have won the right to harvest wild rice, there isn’t always a lot of it to harvest. Wild rice requires certain conditions to grow, and pollution and land development have greatly reduced its range.

Wild rice stands had been disappearing from the region’s lakes and waterways for a long time. Between 1879 and 1920, a series of locks and dams were built that connected Lake Ontario with Georgian Bay—a vast stretch of Lake Huron considered to be a lake in its own right—across 240 miles of lakes and rivers. These interventions caused water levels throughout the system of rivers and like to rise dramatically. Rice Lake in southeastern Ontario, so named for its once dense stands of wild rice, was no exception. “The water went from three to four feet in depth, perfect for wild rice, to about eight to ten feet, which wiped out the manoomin,” says Jeff Beaver, a First Nations wild rice harvester from Alderville, Ontario.

The introduction of carp into Lake Ontario in the late 19th century degraded shallow lakes with their bottom feeding, and the application of herbicides, agricultural runoff, and the dredging of swamp areas by lakeside cottage dwellers all took their toll on wild rice growth.

After protest at Ardoch, wild rice stands on Pigeon Lake dwindled again, in part, Whetung believes, due to a federal weed eradication program designed to make way for the motorized pleasure crafts of the mostly white Toronto leisure class whose summer cottages line its shores. “I saw it disappearing, and people on the reservation lost contact with it,” Whetung says.

But then, about 15 years ago, water quality finally began improving. Whetung attributes the improvement to the rising price of gas, which has resulted in less motor boat activity on the lakes. The scourge of invasive zebra mussels has also had a silver lining: the mussels’ natural filtering abilities have given wild rice stands cleaner water in which to thrive. The federal government’s efforts at aquatic and shoreline habitation in the region over the past decade have also played a role.

Today Whetung has a small fleet of canoes that he uses to lead educational outings, as well as a motorized air boat, favored by wild ricers for its ability to skim the water’s surface and leave the wild grasses unharmed. Both his seeding activities and the airboat—more noisy and disruptive than a canoe—have played a role in antagonizing cottage dwellers. For close to 10 years now, a group of residents has protested Whetung’s activities, claiming that wild rice stands make navigation along the waterways difficult. One point of contention is that while a 1923 treaty between the federal government and First Nations gives First Nations people the right to hunt, fish, and gather food for social and ceremonial purposes, commercial use is not mentioned.

Whetung, for his part says he sells a small amount of rice at local farmers markets, but is more focused helping First Nations people reclaim wild rice as part of their culture and on local agritourism opportunities. Tensions came to a head in July 2015 when the federal Parks Canada, which oversees the area’s Trent-Severn Waterway, issued a permit to residents for removal of enough aquatic vegetation to allow safe navigation. The Aboriginal community was not consulted, however, and mounted a protest. In the end the grass removal was halted. Since then, tensions have eased somewhat, but not disappeared.

A CULTURAL LIFELINE

The promise of wild rice as a touchstone is also apparent in the story of media artist, musician and wild ricer Melody McKiver, who lives in Lac Seul, Sioux Lookout, northwest Ontario.

McKiver began her quest to learn about wild rice in 2013. Her interest was tied to a larger desire to reconnect to her maternal family. Her grandmother had been a residential school survivor and her mother was a “Sixties Scoop” survivor, referring to a program begun in the 1960s that gradually phased out residential schools. First Nations children were “scooped” from their home and placed in foster homes or up for adoption to promote assimilation. 

An offer of employment on the Obishikokaang Lac Seul First Nation reserve made it possible for her to return to her family’s homeland, where she could fill some of the blanks in her family history, and participate in the wild rice harvest. She moved to Lac Seul in 2016.

“I wanted to get to know the community better and live on that land,” she says. The move also gave her the chance to contact tribal elders who have decades of wild rice experience that her own generation lacks.

Her own process has been one of trial-and-error and close observation. To harvest wild rice, she paddles a tributary of the Ottawa River, using shaved-off hockey sticks to gently knock the ripe seeds into her canoe. “It’s an ongoing struggle to get enough rice,” she says.

For both Whetung and McKiver, wild rice is not only a delicious traditional food they want to reclaim, it is also a way to fight the epidemic of diabetes and obesity that has gripped their communities. “[Manoomin is] a really important part of our cultural identity and food sovereignty,”  says McRiver.

A combination of land loss, dispossession, damming, environmental degradation, and the poor nutrition of the residential schools have added up a situation, Whetung adds, where “access to our foods has been legislated away.” But signs of a wild rice renaissance can be found. Several reserve communities throughout the region where McKiver lives hold “dancing” ceremonies for the manoomin hulling process, accompanied by drumming and singing. There’s also a local native-run winery that makes wild rice wine.

Although she doesn’t have the time to harvest and process more than a small amount for her own consumption—“It’s not going to feed me like hunting a moose,” McKiver notes—for her the value of manoomin is in its “connection with the land, the ceremonies and stories.” On every river outing, she tries to bring along someone new to manoomin.

“A lot of careful work needs to be done to develop mentorship and sustainable practices,” she says. “But I’m an optimist—I think we can do that.”

Wild rice from Black Duck Wild Rice is available for purchase in Toronto only, but you may support similar efforts by ordering Native Harvest wild rice from the White Earth Land Project an Ojibwe organization that is working to preserve and restore traditional practices of land stewardship, language fluency, community development, and strengthening the spiritual and cultural heritage of the Ojibwe in Minnesota.

Read it at Organic Life

'Fasting And Feasting': The Remarkable Life of Patience Gray

At Chef Michael Stadtländer’s Farmhouse, Dinner Is Served